Every morning, the Wharton School’s Associate Dean Deirdre Woods prepares for work by carefully selecting her outfit. Her decision can sometimes take a few extra minutes since she has to ensure that her clothes are suitable for her commute.
There is one accessory that Woods always grabs before leaving: her ensemble isn’t complete until she straps on her old helmet and steps onto her 1970s bicycle.
An increasing number of Penn faculty also begin their day with a bike ride to work, according to Emily Schiller, Wharton’s associate director for Sustainability and Leadership.
The Penn Commuter Survey reported a 125-percent increase in those who listed bicycle as their primary mode of transportation to campus between 2009 to 2010, Schiller wrote in an email.
Many professors who bike to work live more than 10 miles away from campus, which can translate to a 45-minute or longer commute.
Professors generally find their faculty buildings to be bike-friendly. While some park their bikes on racks outside, others store them in their offices.
The biking trend among professors has hit new highs in the Operations and Information Management department at the Wharton School. Of 25 OPIM professors, about a quarter bike to work every day.
Riding a bike to work has turned into a social activity where professors can bond, according to Vice Dean of Innovation Karl Ulrich.
Len Lodish, an OPIM professor, has been biking to campus for 43 years. He describes his daily commute from Wynnewood, Pa., as 12 miles of free exercise.
OPIM assistant professor Uri Simonsohn also opts to bike to work every day in order to conserve energy.
“It is fun biking next to a Prius and think[ing] of them as an SUV in comparison to [my] CO2 footprint,” Simonsohn wrote in an email.
OPIM professor Christian Terwiesch believes that biking is a lifestyle choice. “You really have to ask what kind of life you want to live,” Terwiesch said.
Wharton Vice Dean Anjani Jain, who lives in Chestnut Hill, usually bikes 12.5 miles through Fairmount Park. He describes his journey as “one of the most scenic bike rides you could ask for.”
Aside from the environmental and health benefits, many professors choose to bike to work since it is economical. Professors can save money on both gas and parking spaces. A parking space from the University costs around $7.43 per day for faculty, according to Penn Parking Services.
Other professors noted that their commute to work can often take the same amount of time in a car as on a bicycle – especially during rush hour.
“Whenever I am forced to drive to work, I arrive stressed out and depressed about human behavior,” Ulrich wrote in an email.
Reinventing the bicycle
“The bicycle is an incredible invention, providing fast, inexpensive transportation while enhancing fitness. I can’t imagine sitting in a car back and forth to work, and then having to drive to a gym to get exercise. I’d never do that,” Ulrich added.
Ulrich enjoys biking so much that he left Penn a few years ago to found a bike-and-scooter company called “Xootr,” where he designed bikes that help people in urban areas commute. The bike is a Xootr product, which folds up and can be easily transported between buildings on campus.
Weather to bike
While some professors’ decisions to commute on two wheels are dictated by the weather, Ulrich and Terwiesch claim that these fair-weather bikers aren’t really bikers.
“A couple of bike rides a year … are painful,” Terwiesch said, who bikes to work every day.
“Remember that Philadelphians pay thousands of dollars to take ski vacations to experience cold wind in their faces. I get that experience for free in Philadelphia in February on my bicycle,” Ulrich wrote.
Woods also rides her vintage bike through rain and shine.
“I think that people find it a little interesting,” Woods said, adding that she tries to inspire other professors through her example.
In his four decades of biking to work, Lodish has experienced some close-calls. Once, a station wagon crushed his bicycle but he was thrown free.
The most serious damage that his biking has done to date, Lodish says, has been to his wardrobe. He recalls falling from his bike and ripping a pair of pants.
Unfortunately, not all professors who bike have been so lucky.
A crash with a truck left Jain with a broken collarbone – but even a truck couldn’t crush his dedication to biking.
“I have done stupid things on the bike,” Jain admitted. “But [the accident] was not one of them. This was one of those things that I think is totally freakish and unpredictable… Hence, I figured it shouldn’t change my behavior.”
Once his collarbone healed, Jain was back on his bike.
An uphill battle
“The best thing is to always bike,” Terwiesch said.
For him, too many people are taking the easy way out and driving, which congests the roads and burns fossil fuels.
“[It] doesn’t make sense. We all lose,” he said.
“As the biggest employer in the city, [Penn] can do more” to encourage biking in Philadelphia, Jain added.
This article has been updated from its original version to reflect that the Penn Commuter Survey reported a 125-percent increase in biking from 2009 to 2010, not a 2-percent increase.